Family-owned Xfinity teams brace for long break

Brandon Brown
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Less than 24 hours after NASCAR announced it would not hold races until at least May due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Brandon Brown was trying to look on the bright side.

The 26-year-old driver at Brandonbilt Motorsports, a family-owned Xfinity Series team with shop locations in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and Mooresville, North Carolina, was discussing what the team would do until NASCAR’s scheduled return in two months.

“So North Carolina has our pull down rig,” Brown told NBC Sports on Tuesday morning. “So there’s plenty of time to go test. If they want to test a thousand different setups, then by all means, please do. We don’t really get a research and development team being a smaller organization. Now is the time to take advantage of what what we can.”

It was then that Brown was informed that due to “unprecedented events,” NASCAR had just announced a ban on all forms of testing not related to the Cup Series’ Next Gen car.

“Well, I guess we are not doing any research and development, so they’re going home,” Brown said, adding all that may be left to do is “put a car cover (on his race cars) I guess.”

The “unprecedented events” cited by NASCAR is COVID-19, which in less than a week has brought sports and the world in general to a halt. According to the Johns Hopkins University and Medicine coronavirus resource center, the virus has resulted in 5,853 confirmed cases in the U.S. and 97 confirmed deaths.

It’s also placed small teams in the Xfinity Series like Browns’ in a precarious position with likely no regular sources of income until its next scheduled race, May 23 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“What do you think about something that’s never, ever happened to anybody in their lifetimes?” Tommy Joe Martins asked Tuesday morning from Las Vegas. “It’s just not something any of us could probably have been prepared for. So we’re just going to try to make the best of it.”

Martins co-owns and drives for Martins Motorsports, the Xfinity team that relaunched this year. Without prize money from races, which Martins said Monday night on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Late Shift” comprises 80-85% of the team’s budget, it has to furlough its five full-time employees after the first postponed race weekend.

Martins said the team will likely keep crew chief Danny Johnson on part-time and try to help crew members file for unemployment.

“I’m of the opinion this is probably going to get worse for a while,” Martins said. “There might be some sort of a pause in domestic travel or some other things that fall out from it. … Whether you believe that it’s that serious or not, the reaction to it will be serious. It has been very serious and it will affect your life. I think that’s something I’ve taken away from it.”

The impact of the pandemic is hitting Martins on two fronts. Tuesday was his last day of work as a driving instructor at the Ron Fellows Racing School in Las Vegas. Martins said over the last few years he had built a financial cushion for himself that could leave him in a good spot for the next four to five months.

While Monday brought news of NASCAR teams sending employees home as a safety precaution, Brown said his team will try to keep the shop open for two, possibly three weeks.

“We survive on the purse money and we survive on sponsorships, but our sponsors are also struggling,” Brown said. “Parts of their businesses are getting shut down or told they can’t operate. Take for instance, our Daytona sponsor, Larry’s Lemonade. They own a bar and restaurant, but nobody’s going there right now. Without a good income, I wish I had a true deadline of what it’s going to be, but they’re discussing that now. It’s up to the team’s leadership. … But if I had to make a guess, two to three weeks and then we’ll probably be sitting at home.”

When it comes to his personal financial well being, Brown said, “I’ll do OK.

“It’s going to hurt quite a bit, because all of my income comes from working with sponsors and it seems to me right now that companies aren’t really focused on their marketing programs. So a lot of those got put on hold.”

In a teleconference Tuesday afternoon, NASCAR President Steve Phelps was asked what plans the sanctioning body had to financially help teams.

“Are we concerned about teams broadly and their financial health? Of course we are,” Phelps said. “We want to make sure that each of our teams gets through this, each of our stakeholders in the industry gets through this crisis as well as we all can.

“Lots of things on the table. No specifics at this point that we are prepared to discuss.”

Both Brown and Martins have other worries related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For myself, I’ve had to take precautions a little extra serious because my younger brother, who had to come home from school (at James Madison University), he suffers from Crohn’s Disease, which is an auto immune disorder,” Brown said. “So I have to take it really serious because if I bring anything home, I don’t know what complications that could bring to him.”

Martins is thinking about his parents, who are both are in their 60s and live in Mississippi.

“They’re locked down for the most part,” Martins said. “They’re kind of the target age for this being really bad. My mom has rheumatoid arthritis, my dad’s really lived with diabetes on a very minor scale for a while now. My dad’s still very active and diabetes hasn’t really affected his life the way it affects a lot of people. But still, that puts him at a major risk for this. Just told him to be very, very careful. … Obviously, I’d love to be home with them, but honestly I just traveled over the last few weeks and the question that I have right now as a citizen is: ‘Do I have this?’

“Really, you can’t get that answer yet. So I’m just trying to be as careful as I can right now and I really don’t want to drive home and hang out with them just yet until we kind of know all the facts about this.”